BOOKS OF THE YEAR: ANNA CAREYasks writers, poets, historians, comedians, politicians, broadcasters, an editor and a bookshop owner to nominate their favourites
At the end of what seems to have been a poor year for fiction, it is a pleasure to be able to single out a pair of wonderful novels.
Richard Ford’s Canada (Blooms-bury) is a masterly study of loneliness and fortitude, in which an elderly man recalls the disaster that befell him and his sister when his parents, out of desperation, decided to become bank robbers. Ford’s beautiful and subtle prose style and elegiac tone catch the essence of contemporary American life, as no other of his contemporaries do.
Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (Viking) cracks the woman we used to know as the Blessed Virgin out of her cast of pious sentimentality and presents her to us as a living, suffering woman. First performed on stage, The Testament makes its way seamlessly into a short, daring and very moving novel.
John Banville’s novel Ancient Light is published by Viking
No novel published this year came close to the elegance and lyricism of John Banville’s Ancient Light (Viking). The truths and tricks of memory when attached to love affairs of the past combine to create something utterly poignant with a startling payoff in the closing pages. But Banville was given a run for his money by two other Irish novels that employ multiple narrative voices to brilliant effect: Donal Ryan’s outstanding debut, The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland), and Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn Child (Granta), a novel which defies categorisation.
Elsewhere, Susanna Jones’s When Nights Were Cold (Mantle) offers a gripping tale of female Alpine climbers in the early 20th century, while Bethan Roberts’s My Policeman (Chatto Windus) employs an unsettling love story to examine attitudes towards homosexuality in 1950s Britain.
Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (Little Brown), which uses the prejudices and ambitions of a small English town as a microcosm for a nation; it’s the best novel she’s written yet.
John Boyne’s latest book for children, The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket, is published by Doubleday
The word “thriller”, written in large and urgent letters on the front cover, does little to entice me, as it can often translate into hard work for the reader who just wants to be kept mildly enthralled before lights out, but Before I Go to Sleep (Black Swan) is a thriller worth staying up for. It is SJ Watson’s debut and is hugely enjoyable, a psychological thriller about a woman who lost her memory 20 years before and has to be reminded about who she is and who her husband is every day of her life. But there is a gasp-aloud moment that turns everything on its head. Prepare to stay reading late into the night.
In the midst of Olympic fever, I bought Chris Cleave’s Gold (Sceptre), a high-octane journey through the commitment and drive needed to be an Olympic athlete, with a serious nod to the cut-throat element of sport. The main character just about sacrifices her soul in order to win. It is a timely work of fiction, but Cleave is meticulous in his research, a fact that shines through the invented narrative in this great holiday read.
Claire Byrne presents Saturday with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1
The most intriguing book of the year was Laurent Binet’s HHhH (Harvill Secker), which, although advertised as a novel, seemed to be less a novel than a book about the difficulty of writing historical fiction, particularly when it comes to the Nazis and the Holocaust. That makes it sound like hard work, but in fact it’s an engrossing thriller about the plot to kill the SS general Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust and, even by the fairly low standards of the Nazis, a thoroughly appalling human being.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the year was Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace (Viking), which I picked up with some trepidation. It’s eccentric, fragmented, and includes random and repeated digressions on MP3s, model trains and electric cars. It is, therefore, like spending a few hours inside Neil Young’s head, which is an entertaining place to visit even if one wouldn’t want to live there. Finally, ignore the naysayers and immerse yourself in Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), the second part of Hilary Mantel’s planned trilogy on Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. I can think of no better book to keep a reader company over the long winter evenings to come.
John Connolly’s The Wrath of Angels is published by Hodder and Stoughton
Next World Novella (Peirene Press), by Mattias Politycki, is a little gem about loss. An aging academic finds his wife slumped over, dead, at her desk and leaves her there while he meditates on their life and his own obsessions.
In her memoir, Country Girl (Faber and Faber), Edna O’Brien charts a life lived with passion, truth, occasional dazzle, and utter devotion to words. She wears little armour – she peels the skin of memory in language that is fluent, vital, charged with feeling. This is pure Edna.
I found Alice Munro when I was 24 and ever since would walk over coals to reach each new collection. The stories in her latest, Dear Life (Chatto Windus), unmoor the reader in the way only hers can, and then slowly, cumulatively, devastate. The last four pieces are not fictions but veiled childhood memories. Alice is 81 now. I hope she lives to 101, because I cannot imagine a world without her.
Mary Costello’s short-story collection, The China Factory, is published by Stinging Fly Press
Diarmaid Ferriter’s Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s (Profile Books) is an impeccably researched and absorbing account of one of the most important periods of transition since independence. The archival breadth of the book, and its scrupulous methodology, are lessons in how to tackle often opaque sources to produce a narrative that is both compelling and trustworthy.
Harry Clifton’s The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass (Bloodaxe) is a collection from one of our greatest poets, demonstrating yet again his immense skills, his large concerns and his angular relationship to Ireland, one that produces extraordinary verbal and emotional effects which linger long in the mind. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), the second part of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, tells us about the brutality of Tudor England, and its causes, in pellucid prose and superb dialogue. History is made to live.
Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland
The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley et al (Cork University Press), is a stunning achievement, full of cutting-edge research and inter-disciplinary perspectives, lavishly illustrated and a worthy monument to the defining event in modern Irish history.
Pádraig Yeates continues to excel as a social historian and never loses sight of the ordinary citizen, as demonstrated by A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-21 (Gill Macmillan). (See review, page 12.)
Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl: A Memoir (Faber and Faber) might be somewhat reticent in relation to personal revelations, but some of its prose is majestic.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, is published by Profile Books
Marilynn Richtarik’s Stewart Parker: A Life (Oxford University Press) draws a vivid portrait of a brilliant playwright and places him where he belongs – at the heart of the Irish dramatic renaissance of the late 20th century.
Two books of poetry are profoundly moving in different ways: Bernard O’Donoghue’s Farmers Cross (Faber and Faber) shows an apparently effortless control of diverse subjects but is above all elegiac: many of the poems are dedicated to dead friends, notably Ascent to Ben Bulben, in memory of the much-loved Yeatsian scholar George Watson. Tom Paulin’s Love’s Bonfire (Faber and Faber) is also elegiac, but (apart from measured versions of poems by the Palestinian Walid Khazendar) the tone is raw, painful and jagged. The title poem leaves an extraordinary resonance behind it.
Roy Foster is the Carroll professor of Irish history at Hertford College, Oxford
The looming centenary of the Great War will lead to an avalanche of publications on the origins of this great human tragedy that started Europe’s violent 20th century. Those searching for a fresh and well-written account of how Europe stumbled into the abyss in 1914 will find Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (Penguin) most insightful and richly textured.
Another book that made a deep impression on me this year is Shulamit Volkov’s splendid biography of Walther Rathenau (Yale UP). Rathenau surely must be one of the most fascinating German politicians of the 20th century: he was not only the heir to a mighty industrial empire and chief organiser of imperial Germany’s economic war effort, but also a distinguished writer who came to endorse the liberal Weimar Republic after 1918. As a Jewish intellectual and German foreign minister favouring European reconciliation, Rathenau was assassinated by right-wing terrorists in 1922. Volkov tells the story of his extraordinary life with great verve.
Prof Robert Gerwarth is director of UCD’s Centre for War Studies. His most recent book, Hitler’s Hangman, was published last year
Karl Ove Knausgaard has sold 500,000 copies of his six-volume autobiography, My Struggle, in his native Norway. A Death in the Family (Harvill Secker), is the first volume to appear in English. His great achievement is to document the necessary reserve at the heart of intimacy. The power of good autobiographical writing derives from the shameful knowledge that those closest to you will be caught in its friendly fire. Every sentence costs and must be written true. Glacially slow but incredibly moving, this was my book of the year.
Harry Clifton’s new collection of poetry, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass (Bloodaxe), shows a similar integrity in its high and chilly latitudes. After years of living in Paris, the Ireland professor of poetry has returned home determined to remain an exile. Ever the flâneur, he writes poems that refuse consensus and shimmer with the echoes of lost histories, lost nature in Belderrig, Toome and the Atacama desert. This is a collection I will reread in the years ahead.
Selina Guinness’s memoir, The Crocodile by the Door, is published by Penguin Ireland and has been shortlisted for the 2012 Costa biography award
Sadly, Nora Ephron died this year. I’ve been rereading a lot of her essays: they are clever, honest and hilarious. Another hero of mine is still going strong, thankfully, and I’m in the middle of her memoir, Country Girl, by Edna O’Brien (Faber and Faber). It is brilliant!
In A Month of Somedays (Londubh Books), the Irish Times journalist and mother of three Catherine Cleary stops procrastinating and finally does some of the things she’s been meaning to do for years. As an all-or-nothing person, I appreciate this book because it shows how incrementally, daily, you can just make small changes. Then you have to stick at it and, slowly, you’ll begin to live the life you’ve imagined. Wonderful.
I loved Dermot Bolger’s sequence of poems The Venice Suite (New Island) because they are beautiful and straight from the heart. Also, reading them made me think about things I’d rather not think about, which is, I suppose, healthy. Be careful where you read them, though, because you’ll cry.
Maeve Higgins is a comedian whose book We Have a Good Time . . . Don’t We? is published by Hachette Books Ireland
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Vintage) is Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant, searingly honest memoir of growing up as an outsider, the adopted daughter of Pentecostal parents. Like the great Harry Potter, Winterson bears a childhood scar, and the beauty and hope with which she writes about the darkest of childhoods is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Winterson writes: “All my life I have worked from the wound. To heal it would mean an end to one identity – the defining identity. But the healed wound is not the disappeared wound; there will always be a scar. I will always be recognisable by my scar.”
History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life (Washington Square Press), by Jill Bialosky, is so articulate and close to the bone that one holds one’s breath while reading it. It is written with a poet’s eye and a novelist’s gift. Bialosky takes the reader on a deeply personal journey, giving language to the emotional devastation of “surviving” a suicide. Imbued with psychological drama, charged with the multiple perspectives of her roles as sister, wife and mother, this harrowing and intimate memoir is remarkable for its bravery and ability to tolerate the intolerable.
AM Homes’s novel May We Be Forgiven is published by Granta
The best novel I read this year was The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers (Sceptre), a stunning debut, about the psychological damage that war inflicts on young soldiers. HHhH, by Lauren Binet (Harvill Secker), is another war story, but it also explores how tricky it is for an author to portray history in a work of fiction.
The Rose Garden: Short Stories, by Maeve Brennan (Counterpoint), and The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler (Chatto Windus), have both been big sellers at the Gutter Bookshop and are great reads. My favourite quirky novel this year was The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonnasson (Hesperus Press). The Fault in our Stars, by John Green (Penguin), is a great book for young adults. My nonfiction picks would be Quiet, by Susan Cain (Viking), a celebration of the importance of introverts, and Ian Sansom’s Paper: An Elegy (Fourth Estate), a timely reminder of both the vulnerability and the durability of an amazing product.
Bob Johnston is the owner of the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, which was named one of Ireland’s best shops in the Irish Times Magazine earlier this year and also shortlisted for bookshop of the year at the Irish Book Awards 2012
Kevin Barry’s short-story collection, Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape), is still ringing in my ears, months after I read it. I smile every time I think of that hotel in Killary, bought on a romantic whim by a poet who finds himself stranded behind the bar and prey to the “magnificent mood swings” of the locals. This is wickedly stylish writing. I loved Tim Lott’s Under the Same Stars (Simon Schuster), a novel about two English brothers who undertake a road trip across the US in search of their prodigal father. Brutally funny and subtly beautiful, it’s set against a stunning desert landscape and populated by a cast of great American eccentrics. The poems in Paul Durcan’s Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being (Harvill Secker) were for me a personal journey through places and people I know, among them his lovely portrait of my mother, Valdi, with “her seaside airs and graces”.
Kathleen MacMahon’s novel This Is How It Ends is published by Sphere
Since most of 2012 was spent reading books I’d been given last Christmas, I only got to tackle four books published during the year – three of which I’m still reading. Most irritating book of the bunch was Laurent Binet’s critically lauded HHhH (Harvill Secker). (Even the title was irritating.) An account of the assassination of top Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, the narrative was constantly interrupted by the author’s clunky analysis and reflections on the act of writing the book, accompanied by attempts at humour so lame that I can only presume that they were lost in translation. The whole thing smacked of a gimmick to me. I hope it’s not the beginning of a trend. Johnny (now John) Giles was a hero of mine growing up, and his latest book, The Great and the Good (Hachette Books Ireland), is a highly readable look back at the great players he has played with or simply observed. I’m also enjoying Maeve Higgins’s very entertaining We Have a Good Time, Don’t We? (Hachette Books Ireland). (Great title too.) Which leaves me with Pádraig Yeates’s A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-18 (Gill Macmillan). It looks good so far, and the print is very small so it’ll probably keep me going until next Christmas.
Arthur Mathews’s Angry Baby: Ireland’s Youngest Political Activist Speaks Out, is published by Hachette Books Ireland
This was the year I finally discovered Kevin Barry. His collection Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape) is full to the brim of its hat with fine stories, strong rhythms and well-tuned voices. I went running for his earlier books.
In a great year for short stories, I was also struck by Lucy Woods’s debut, Diving Belles (Bloomsbury). I usually flinch at myths and ghosties, but her use of Cornish folk tales as the backdrop for very modern tales of loneliness and loss was inspired.
David Millar’s Racing Through the Dark (Orion), while better than most sports biographies, won’t win any prizes for literary style. But in the year of Lance Armstrong’s undoing, this insider’s tale of doping was essential reading.
Finally, not actually a book, but some of the most vital challenging, warm, tangential, alive literary criticism I read this year came from the online essayist Roxane Gay, mostly through her blog, Roxane Gay Is Spelled With One “N”.
Jon McGregor’s short-story collection This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You is published by Bloomsbury
The novel I particularly liked this year was Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon, (Fourth Estate). Chabon is a poet in prose fiction writer’s clothing, endlessly capable of turning sentences that are self- delighting but free of aerodynamic drag. While ostensibly about a turf war between the owners of a smalltime vinyl outlet and an incoming megastore on the border of groovy, hip Berkeley and gritty, hopped-up Oakland, Telegraph Avenue takes in, and takes on, an impressive range of issues, including race in the age of Barack Obama.
Among the books of verse that particularly stood out this year was Dean Young’s Bender: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon). Young is what one might call a prose fiction writer in poet’s clothing, given his all too rare way with narrative and characterisation, never mind his killer mix of grimness and grace in, say, Bolinas, California:
Somewhere under the weeds, rare roses
hiding from the deer.
No one’s seen the cat for weeks.
Don’t flip this switch when you flip that.
A shark attacked one of the lean boys near the clam patch, so now’s a good time to get a used board.
Paul Muldoon’s latest poetry collection, Maggot, is published by Faber and Faber
The two books I enjoyed most in 2012 have nothing in common apart from the fact that they were both written in English. Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape) was a welcome return to form for the bestselling author after the disappointing Solar in 2010. It is a funny, sad and intriguing spy novel/love story.
I am not an avid reader of sports autobiographies, because I find most of them to be lacking in depth, but Lar Corbett’s All in My Head (Transworld Ireland) was a refreshing departure from the norm. The Tipperary hurler documents his recent path from hero to villain with great candour, and there is a very entertaining chapter about his nonrelationship with the former manager and Tipp hurling great, “Babs” Keating.
Kathleen MacMahon’s beautifully written This Is How It Ends (Sphere) is a great debut by my former RTÉ colleague. Finally, I’d like to recommend two small books for the Christmas stocking with plenty of witty observations about our current predicament: Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints (Jonathan Cape) and Arthur Mathews’s Angry Baby (Hachette Books Ireland).
John Murray is the presenter of The John Murray Show on RTÉ Radio 1
I have read so many books by Irish authors this year – some absolutely exceptional pieces of writing – that I simply would find it impossible to choose one Irish author over another. So I am deliberately not choosing any Irish book this year.
Looking away from Ireland, Home, by Toni Morrison (Chatto Windus), stands out. The story of 24-year-old Frank Money, a Korean War veteran who embarks on a reluctant journey home, is really a parable for all of us about where and what is home. Frank is “not totally homeless, but close”. We are all part of this land we call home.
I was incredibly impressed by The Dream of the Celt, by Mario Vargos Llosa (Faber and Faber). My sister Margaret is a historian, and through her I have become fascinated by Roger Casement. This novel sets out a powerful case for the reprieve of this complex but fascinating man, whose courageous and landmark reports on human-rights abuses in Congo and Amazonia were all too often forgotten because of how his life ended. If you have not already read this book, read it now.
Miriam O’Callaghan presents Prime Time on RTÉ1 and Miriam Meets on RTÉ Radio 1
The Royal Irish Academy’s Domestic Life in Ireland appealed to my love of minutiae: 12 essays explore the changing meaning of home and privacy across 6,000 years. My inner (and, it has to be said, armchair) gardener dreamed of self-sufficiency while reading Rooted in the Soil , a history of cottage gardens and allotments in Ireland since 1750 (Four Courts Press).
I learnt a huge amount about Dublin in the early modern and Victorian periods in Desmond McCabe’s detailed examination of a single city square: St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 1660-1875 (Office of Public Works).
Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists (Hamish Hamilton) allows atheists to reclaim the social functions of religion, which, the author tells us, when stripped of the supernatural, can be safely embraced without losing your atheistic street cred.
My only fiction read of the year was Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth (Doubleday). It offers an intriguing slant on how the human race would react to the existence of parallel earths and the promise of a new frontier.
Aoife O’Connor is the editor of Small Lives: Photographs of Irish Childhood 1860-1970 (Gill Macmillan)
I was entranced by Mary Costello’s collection of remarkably beautiful stories, The China Factory (Stinging Fly Press). Dermot Bolger’s The Venice Suite (New Island), a sequence of unforgettable poems about bereavement, kindles hope through the courageous dignity of the writing.
Every line of Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape) brings pleasures and recognitions. Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (Viking), a novella of absences and silences, achieves a shimmering power. John Banville’s Ancient Light (Viking) is enthralling. So too is Jonathan Dee’s subtle novel The Privileges (Corsair).
David Byrne’s How Music Works (Canongate) is a fascinating read, as is Here Comes Everybody (Faber and Faber), James Fearnley’s memoir of The Pogues.
Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill's gorgeous book on the history of Clifden, A Colony of Strangers ( connemaragirlpublications.com) would make a treasured Christmas gift for anyone who's interested in the Irish west.
I loved 30 Under 30 (Wordlegs/Doire Press), an exhilarating collection of fiction by Irish writers in their 20s. Edited by Elizabeth Reapy and first published as an ebook, this anthology contains voices to get excited about.
Joseph O’Connor’s Where Have You Been? is published by Harvill Secker. His adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is currently playing at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. He received the 2012 Irish Pen Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature
Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin (Penguin), is a great read, very detailed and unveiling a lot about Charles Dickens that I didn’t know before. I also re-read Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography, by Antoinette Quinn (Gill and Macmillan). I had read it before but getting ready for Mastermind I read it again: it is a brilliant biography and explains so much of Kavanagh.
In the latter quarter of 2012 I was given a book called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday), by Rachel Joyce. I devoured it at one sitting and refused to answer phone or door until I had it completely read. It’s quirky, interesting and, above all, riveting.
Now I am looking forward to Christmas and to getting good, fat, decent book tokens from my sons. I wish good reading to everyone, especially of my memoir, Just Mary (Gill Macmillan)!
Mary O’Rourke is a former minister whose memoir, Just Mary, won the John Murray Show Listeners’ Choice Award at the 2012 Irish Book Awards
This summer I read Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, a cold-war novel which I thoroughly enjoyed, possibly because I can remember the period so well. Eileen Battersby, this paper’s critic, may not have taken pleasure from the novel, but I did. Besides, I had read Saturday and On Chesil Beach by the same author.
Mary O’Rourke and I served in government together, from 1992 to1994, and got on well, both being early starters and hard workers. She had been minister for education for five years and I was curious to read her insights from that time in her memoir, Just Mary (Gill Macmillan). I was not disappointed.
I have long admired the historian Mark Mazower and have read most of his work on central Europe and the Balkans. Governing the World: the History of an Idea is a new departure, starting with the Concert of Europe 1815-1914 and moving through the formation of the United Nations and right up to the crisis of government within the European Union. Mazower’s scholarship and passion are a constant delight.
Ruairí Quinn TD is the Minister for Education and Skills
The new edition of The Book of Kells (Thames Hudson) is notable for the quality and sharpness of the colour illustration and for the lucid text by Bernard Meehan. There is a tone in Joseph O’Connor’s collection of stories Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker) that the monks might have recognised: it is playful but also at times sorrowful; it allows in great quantities of life, offering the dramas at times a dark edge but also the full glory of our earthly confusion.
In poetry, Mary O’Malley’s Valparaiso (Carcanet Press) and Harry Clifton’s The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass (Bloodaxe) are set in worlds we recognise. O’Malley’s seascapes and Clifton’s urban settings, however, are suffused with such beauty and sonorous mystery and rhythmic care that they lift us above ourselves and the time we inhabit.
Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is published by Viking